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Denizens: 12 - Departure

...what if Arnie decides he wants to take it all the way to the bottom of the Mariana Trench?” Tom gesticulated, slopping a little whiskey on his hand. “Thirty seven, thirty eight thousand feet, for Christ’s sake! Almost two miles deeper than Everest is high.” He sipped at his drink, and continued. “That’s a pressure of about thirteen hundred atmospheres! Can you imagine what it would be like to have that weight of water between you and the surface?”...

The team assembled to investigate the sighting of huge creatures in the deepest ocean reaches begin to contemplate the enormity of their mission.

Brian William Neal's great sci-fi adventure novel leaves you each week begging to read the next episode. For earlier chapters please click on Denizens in the menu on this page.

Dobb’s Point,
Los Angeles
July, 2034

Tom Stoddard worked closely with John Peel and Jennifer Oates for three further days before they finally were ready to leave for the western Pacific. In the evenings, Jennifer retired to her room and, as far as Tom could tell, John went to his. Alone. Well, he thought, at least they aren’t getting together. Perhaps they were only friends after all.

The evening before they left for Guam, Tom was bored and looking for company, so he knocked on the door of John Peel’s room. The New Zealander was alone, and let Tom in with a grin when Tom produced a fifth of Jack Daniel’s. John sat on the bed, and waved Tom to the room’s only chair. He produced a pair of glasses that were more or less clean, and poured drinks for them both. Then the two began to discuss their thoughts and feelings about the upcoming mission.

John Peel had proved himself the consummate professional when it came to his job. He never took risks, constantly checking and re-checking the safety aspects, making sure that all possible contingencies had been considered and allowed for. When Tom suggested that some people might find this tedious, or even nit-picking, John was uncharacteristically brusque.

“Well, too bloody bad, mate. The sea doesn’t forgive mistakes, or sloppy preparation.” He grinned lopsidedly. “I know that probably sounds as pompous as hell, but that doesn’t make it any less true.”

Pouring them both more of Tennessee’s finest, Tom asked, “What about this new metal, John? I know it looks like the real thing in the lab tests, but do you think it’ll hold at the depths we could be diving to? I mean, Jesus, what if Arnie decides he wants to take it all the way to the bottom of the Mariana Trench?” Tom gesticulated, slopping a little whiskey on his hand. “Thirty seven, thirty eight thousand feet, for Christ’s sake! Almost two miles deeper than Everest is high.” He sipped at his drink, and continued. “That’s a pressure of about thirteen hundred atmospheres! Can you imagine what it would be like to have that weight of water between you and the surface?” He quieted as suddenly as he had begun, and stared into his glass before continuing more softly. “Sorry. I guess I’m not used to being frightened of anything to do with the sea.”

Silence descended and was broken by a knock on the door. Tom opened it, and Jennifer walked past him into the room. She smiled at them, and sat on the bed beside John, slipping her arm through his.

“So,” she said, “you guys thought you could have your own little party without me, did you?”

Tom, swallowing his disappointment at the sight of their apparent intimacy, said, “Would you like a drink?”

Jennifer shook her head. “Not if that’s all you’ve got. I don’t like whiskey.” She dug John in the ribs. “You should know that, you rat bag,” she laughed. “Why haven’t you got some wine, or something I like?”

Tom watched this exchange, smiling but feeling gloomier inside all the time. They even know each other’s drinks, he thought. What chance have I got? He decided to take his defeat like a man. Settling back into his chair, he began to ask the two Kiwis about themselves, directing most of his questions at Jennifer. She answered casually, taking the occasional sip from John’s glass and pulling a face each time.

Jennifer had been born in Nelson, a small city of about seventy-five thousand people at the northern end of the South Island of New Zealand, while John was from Wellington, the capital, just across Cook Strait. After graduating from university, Jennifer had traveled overseas to gain practical experience.

“It’s the story of our lives, us Kiwis,” she said. “It’s a beautiful place to live, but so many people have to leave and go abroad if they want to do anything other than run a small business or work for someone who does.”

“Oh, come on, Jen,” said John, “that’s not quite true.” To Tom, he said, “Although I have to admit, she does have a point. We’re a bit of a wandering race, we are. It’s funny; New Zealanders lead the world in so many unexpected places, but at home, they’re so wary of risks, you have to wonder how. ‘Don’t make waves’ seems almost to be the Kiwi catch cry.” John took a pull at his drink and continued.

“Someone summed us up once, a long time ago, some famous American actor who was making a movie down there. He said we have this idea that it’s wrong to stand out from the crowd, to try to rise above everyone. ‘You can be good, but don’t you dare be better than anyone else’. The old tall poppy syndrome. Sometimes I think we invented it.”

Tom nodded. “But you two left.” He turned to Jennifer again. “What did you do after college?”

“Oh, I was lucky,” she said modestly. “I met the head of the Cousteau organization in the Caribbean, another Kiwi, and he invited me to join the Calypso III. I was with them for two years; among other things, I learned to pilot a submersible. Then I made my way to the States, and went to Caltech for two years. Then, in another piece of luck, the offer came to join Dobb’s point, and I jumped at it.”

Tom refilled his and John’s glass, and said, “I guess you must have been surprised to find John here, running into him so far from home.”

The two on the bed exchanged a look, and John said, “Yes, you could say that. I was on a refresher course with the U.S. Navy at Annapolis. Y’know, relations between our two countries have improved a lot since the old ANZUS treaty was revamped, and fusion engines began to replace the old fission plants in your warships that used to get us Kiwis so riled up.” John took a drink and chuckled. “You guys haven’t been able to get one of those into our ports for forty-five years, since nineteen eighty-four.”

Tom nodded. “Yes, I read something about that,” he said. “What was it really all about?”

John took another drink, getting into his stride. Obviously, this was a pet subject of his.
“Put plain and simply,” he said, “the right-wing government of the time first tried to influence, then persuade, then to bully the people into accepting nuclear ships into our ports. First, they said it was for the safety of the nation, perhaps even the world, all that flag waving crap. Then, when that didn’t work, when the Americans and the Russians stopped being each other’s enemy, they said our overseas trade would suffer if we didn’t do what the Americans wanted. All bullshit, of course. Anyway, the people dug their toes in and said ‘no’, and eventually the politicians had to give in.
“They had discovered a remarkable truth that should have been obvious: if you continue to ride roughshod over the wishes of the people, you will eventually find yourselves out of a job. They had enough sense to realize that if they just arbitrarily changed the law to allow the ships in, they’d never be the government again, not in their political lifetimes, anyway. Then the fusion thing happened, and the problem was solved. Although not, admittedly, overnight. A lot of people took a long time to be convinced about the safety of fusion power. There are still some who are not convinced, even now.”

Jennifer laughed. “But that’s New Zealand, isn’t it?” she said fondly. “Some people there will never be convinced, bless ’em, no matter what. We could have an accident free record for a hundred years or more, and there would still be some Kiwis who would say, ‘Well, hang on, let’s not rush into this’.”

John took another mouthful of bourbon and said, “What about you, Tom? How did you come to be here?”

Tom glanced at Jennifer, and saw she was sitting forward on the bed, listening intently. He hoped it wasn’t his imagination, but she seemed more than casually interested in what he had to say, so he began by giving them a condensed version of his life story.

He told them of his work at Stanford, and his recruitment by the enigmatic Mr. Cheeseman. Jennifer pronounced that she had found the government man ‘creepy’, then asked Tom where he was from, and what his home life had been like. Encouraged, he went on. “I was what you might call an underprivileged kid,” he said, helping himself to a small shot of whiskey. Then he found himself telling them all about his upbringing, warts and all.

He told them how his father “beat the snot out of me until I was sixteen years old,” something he had never told anyone else before. The two New Zealanders listened sympathetically as he unburdened himself of a great many of his childhood hang-ups. Just talking about the past seemed to lift great weights from him, and exorcised a few demons along the way.

All the time he was talking, Jennifer’s eyes never left him. At one point, she asked, “What happened when you were sixteen? Why did your father stop beating you up?”

Tom shrugged. “I guess I got too big. Then he switched from me to my Mom, so I took to him with a pick handle. After that, he stayed pretty much away from the both of us.”

The room was quiet for a moment, then Jennifer said, “Good for you.” Then she stood up, a little unsteadily, and announced she was going to bed, and Tom was delighted when she asked him to walk her back to her room. He glanced at John, but the other man seemed totally unconcerned.

When they got to her room, Jennifer turned and smiled at Tom. “Thank you, kind sir,” she said, slightly tipsy, “for seeing me safely to my door. I shall sleep all the more soundly, knowing you are nearby, ready to protect me.” She looked into his eyes, and said, “You are, aren’t you?”

Tom nodded, unable to speak. They were standing very close together in the corridor, and her perfume, faint and mostly natural, filled his head. Her large blue eyes looked into his for a moment longer, then she smiled and kissed his cheek. With a small wave, she stepped into her room and closed the door, leaving Tom alone in the corridor.

He stood there for a moment, then turned and started back towards his own room. After a few paces, he was whistling a tune under his breath.

*

The next day, after a slightly hung-over breakfast, it was announced that they were ready to leave for Guam. The subs were loaded on to two huge C-230J aircraft, appropriately named Hercules, the new, larger version of the old C-130’s. At 1300 hours, they took off from Los Angeles, and flew the first of the three legs of the trip.

Landing in Honolulu, they refueled and flew another fifteen hundred miles to Wake Island. Then they flew the remaining thirteen hundred and fifty miles to the Mariana Islands, touching down at Anderson AFB, Guam, at midnight. It was two days after they had left; they had crossed the International Date Line, and so had lost a day.

Gathering their gear, the members of the team stepped from the planes on to the tarmac. The air was hot and humid, even at that late hour, and the sky was clear. The stars shone in the sky, something they did not often see in the smog ridden cities, and they lingered a moment. Then Arnold began organizing them to supervise the unloading of the two subs. There would be little time, he told them, to enjoy their surroundings.


***

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